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Veggies float in a flood of memory


Two weeks ago, I thought about cauliflower, came up with a few notions about where I could go with the piece in a column … then promptly forgot everything.

I do that a lot these days.

As I move deeper into the fourth quarter of the game of life, with no hope of returning to the locker room for a shower, I find my short-term memory is increasingly faulty. To compensate, I make lists of things I need to do, things I need to buy at the store.

It is a simple, theoretically effective ploy.

Theoretical, because I usually forget the lists. I leave them in my wake like debris floating from a sinking ship.

I don’t recall names. I see a familiar face and, too often, I can’t pull the name from the black hole that passes for my mind.

It’s cruel.

And yet, my memory of things distant is accessible. I dredge up crud from the past with relative ease. Especially when I’m on mnemonic autopilot.

All it takes is a scent, a sound, a taste. I hear a tune, a familiar voice and the process begins. At the mention of a place or an event the associations flow; the current of the stream of consciousness, coursing rearward, sweeps me up. Sure, the memories have been edited, tidied up and altered, (after all, our history is what we need it to be), but they are vivid and they meld without obvious connection one into the next.

I’m driving home from work the other day. An hour or so earlier, I mentioned something about the Denver of my childhood and now I am recalling one scene after another, one event after another. From nearly 55 years ago. I can’t remember what my wife asked me to get at the store a mere four hours ago, but I can take a mental trek through a world a half century gone.

I open the door of a closet at my grandmother’s house. The closet is above a stairwell and the floor rises at a steep angle. It is a useless space, but for the recreational opportunity it offers a 10-year-old. From there, I am transported to a bed in the basement of that house. I am younger, perhaps 6 years old. I am tucked beneath the covers; my 2-year-old brother is in another bed in the room. There is a party going on upstairs. I hear laughter, music, a scramble of conversation, ice clinking in glasses. I smell cigarette smoke. The guests’ coats are piled on the end of the bed. I smell perfume on the furs.

In a flash, I’m in the pool hall in Central City in 1958. Stinky Menigotti’s grandfather owns the joint. Old-timers play poker at tables set in an alcove at the back of the hall. I hear the click of chips, raspy coughs; late afternoon light is buffered by brittle yellowed curtains hung across windows in the alcove. There are spittoons on the floor next to the painted wainscoting, a glass counter is set at the front of the long, narrow space, near the front door. Behind the counter sits Stinky’s grandpa, a transparent green visor above his eyes. I remember the way the hall smells. I fetch beers from the Toll Gate bar for the card players, shoot snooker with Stinky and my cousin, make the long climb to my grandmother’s house on Second High Street as the summer evening deepens — trudge up the long wood stairway between Williams Stables and the building that houses the Register Call newspaper office, where my great-grandfather once worked. I negotiate the wreckage of stone steps next to the Ushers’ House, huff and puff my chubby-guy way up the rocky steep slope to Second High then make a final ascent of steep stairs and walkway to the house. I stop there, get a drink of water from my Aunt Hazel, then I’m off again, up the slope of the back yard, past the outhouse, up to Third High Street in front of old Hugh Lorrie’s house with a wave to Viola Laird who stands shadowy in her yard atop the Cornish rock wall that rises like an unmortared brown battlement from the street. I walk past the house that was once owned by my great-grandfather, to the end of the street, to my parents’ house. I smell the air, hear the cars far below me as they drive into town from Blackhawk, hear voices from downtown and the ragtime piano music coming from a bar where ancient Dolly sits, terminally wrinkled, dressed in a Gay ’90s getup, drinking bourbon and tickling the ivories for tourists from Kansas.

I’m carried in the stream to a cafe in Pontiac, Michigan. I’ve been in a bus since 5 a.m., traveling from Grand Rapids to Sault Ste. Marie to play hockey. It’s snowing. It will snow all the way to the Soo. It’s time for breakfast and the waitresses bring everyone the same meal: creamed chipped beef on day-old biscuits. The windows of the café are frosted over; a Patsy Cline song plays on a jukebox.

The music on the Michigan jukebox, circa 1964, segues to music three years later in Manhattan, 1967. It’s raining, 3 a.m., and I’ve walked from The Balloon Farm, a club on St. Mark’s Place to The Tin Angel, a restaurant over on Bleeker Street. I can see and taste the omelet I order. I don’t linger on the memory; the stream pulls me to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I share an order of rubbery clam strips with a girl who looks like she jumped out of a Rossetti painting. Suddenly, the barge of memory docks in Manhattan six years earlier. I’m waiting for my family to get back from Europe, staying alone at the Waldorf Astoria. A childhood friend of my father’s, Norman, drives over from Jersey and takes me to eat at a place called Peter’s Backyard, down on 14th Street. I can taste the bernaise sauce — it’s the first time I’ve eaten bernaise sauce, my initial touch of tarragon. I remember the tomato — the best tomato I’d ever eaten. Norman invites me to spend the night at his place. His wife, Betty, serves fresh blueberries and cream for breakfast.

Memories course one into the next, details are sharp.

And yet, ask me about a phone number I thought I memorized less than an hour ago and I babble like an idiot.

Who’s that guy sitting at the next table? I’ve met him, more than once. Beats me if I can remember his name.

Oh, a meeting at 5:30? Yes, now you remind me, I remember. Sorry I missed it.

These failures of mind are distressing but the trick is not to dally, to move on to something else; the name of the person or song, the address or phone number will appear later, without rhyme or reason.

Thus, I finally remember cauliflower. I’m reading “Cloud Atlas,” by the British writer David Mitchell and, kablam, there it is, front row center in the mind, out of nowhere … cauliflower.

But, what was I going to write about cauliflower?

That, I don’t recall.

So, I decide to sit back and see where the stream takes me with the vegetable as a touchstone.

I hated cauliflower when I was a kid. Didn’t take a shine to it until I was well into adulthood.

Maybe it has something to do with the nasty way the simple vegetable was treated in the kitchens of my childhood.

If state statute prohibited cruelty to vegetables, my mother would have done hard time in the state pen. She tortured all vegetables but saved the lion’s share of her wrath for broccoli and cauliflower. Fortunately, my mother’s kitchen labors were limited or her crimes would have multiplied. Still, to her credit, the damage she inflicted was horrific.

Mom boiled cauliflower (note, the word is “boiled,” not “steamed”) until the vegetable was barely recognizable. Plus, she never began with a fresh product, preferring to use frozen cauliflower. Flavor and texture were annihilated before waterlogged, sludgelike remains were slopped on a plate next to a piece of beef cooked so long it was no longer identifiable as having once been part of an animal.

Even after Mom went on her Metracal and Pepperidge Farm cookie diet, she persisted in offering up vegetable matter as a side to whatever distressed main course she produced for the family. By then, she had discovered “boilin’ bags”— allowing her to continue to practice her primary technique with abandon. The cauliflower in the bags swam in cheese-like gunk. Beyond boilin’, Mom’s home cookin’ repertoire was reduced to using a pair of scissors to free the contents of a bag into a bowl.

Mmmm, deeelish.

Thankfully, we went to restaurants. Frequently.

It was a long time before I encountered cauliflower I liked. It is a difficult vegetable to appreciate; James Beard referred to it as “a somewhat freakish variant of the same cruciferous family as the cabbage.”

My perspective finally changed at an Indian restaurant, with a curried cauliflower and potato mix, the cauliflower florets intact, the flavor heightened by the lively spices. It was the first time I realized cauliflower wasn’t a paste.

Then I discovered that cauliflower, gently steamed after the leaves and dark spots have been removed, either as a whole head or as florets, is delightful simply buttered or, better yet, slathered with anchovy butter — melted butter into which a healthy wad of anchovy paste is incorporated. A bit of fresh-ground black pepper … yesiree.

M.F.K Fisher wrote about making a simple cauliflower gratin with barely steamed florets placed in a shallow casserole. Heavy cream is poured over the florets, grated Gruyere is added, as is some salt and pepper, and the ingredients are baked until the top is brown and the cheese and cream have amalgamated into a silky sauce. I tried it and it’s great.

Better yet, the cream sauce can be prepared ahead of time, cooked with sauteed shallot, some fresh thyme and bay leaf (which are fished out before the baking takes place), a bit of Dijon mustard or a dollop of horseradish, a bit of salt and pepper, perhaps a touch of nutmeg or (as in Thomas Keller’s gratin recipe) a teeny bit of curry powder.

The florets are blanched in salted water for a couple minutes and drained well. Into a buttered casserole they go and the cream sauce is poured over till the florets are partly covered. The grated Gruyere is sprinkled on top and the mix is baked at 425 for about 20 minutes. To finish, the cheesy top of the gratin is browned beneath the broiler.

I intend to make the modified Fisher gratin soon.

If I can remember to do it.

Maybe, I’ll write myself a note.

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